Among The Birds – I
Is anticipation an emotion?
We had been traveling in darkness for about an hour. The eastern sky began to lighten and in the distance shadowy urban landscapes formed a backdrop for the expansive Tampa Bay. Scanning the water’s surface below the tall Sunshine Skyway Bridge, we hoped for a glimpse of dolphins, pelicans, terns or schools of sardines rippling the blue-green water. To the west, the lighthouse at Egmont Key faithfully flashed the beacon which identifies the entrance to Tampa Bay for ships arriving from around the planet.
From the apex of the big bridge, we coasted downhill toward our destination, Fort De Soto Park, bordering Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Every light pole seemed to host an Osprey, some already picking at their freshly caught breakfast of mullet or sea trout. Squadrons of Brown Pelicans cruised across the highway. Laughing Gulls screeched their greeting to the rising sun.
Along the causeway leading to the park, Gini said: “Roll down the windows!” We took in gulps of salt air and arrived at the North Beach parking area just as the first rays of morning sun began to break above the tree line.
A few years ago, this location was prime “sun-bather beach” territory. Pristine white sand was continually refreshed by wave action from the gulf. Then geology and meteorology happened. Hurricanes can affect topography even if they don’t actually make landfall. Strong currents from off-shore storms combined with some pretty good blows which came ashore have altered this area completely. The once exposed beach is now protected by a series of sand-bars. Between beach and bars are shallow lagoons. The sun-bathers have migrated a bit south. Birds populate the sandbars in great numbers as they offer protection as well as a launching point for feeding in the gulf and along the shoreline.
I waded across the first lagoon, stopping to photograph a Marbled Godwit feeding in shallow water just a few yards from a pounding surf. The golden morning light enhanced the bird’s buffy plumage. Reaching an intermediate sandbar, I walked a short distance in the sugary sand and slipped into another lagoon and waded toward the outer bar which was packed with birds.
For the next couple of hours, it seemed I was in another world. Waist deep in the warm gulf water, I moved slowly, stopped often and was accepted by hundreds of birds as they did not consider me a threat.
Birding usually means observing birds through binoculars at some distance in order to avoid frightening the creatures into flight. This – this was something different. Being almost among the birds is a unique experience. Hearing the beating wings of a Black Skimmer as it takes off in search of food. Terns splashing head-first into the water mere feet from where I was standing. A glorious symphony produced by the chaotic cacophony of an incredibly diverse choir.
With so many birds jammed into the available space, attempting to photograph individual subjects was challenging. Patience and exploring eventually resulted in a few images. My weak efforts in no way provide a hint of the overwhelming delight provided by nature. For that, well, you will just have to go and get wet yourself.
Serenity is within our reach,
We find it among the shells at our secret beach
Where we struggle to form the words
Which describe the beauty of our birds.
The sun rises and warms the salty air;
If only we had the power to share
This serenity within our reach,
Paradise on earth, this, our beach.
Rich brown plumage highlighted by the early morning sunshine gave the Marbled Godwit a very special spotlight as she probed the shallow water within a few feet of waves crashing onto the sandbar.
Golden eyes reflect golden sunlight. A Great Egret patiently scans the waters for a potential meal.
Bobbing tail, crouched posture, always in a hurry – the Spotted Sandpiper loses the spots from its underside during the winter and is mostly gray above and white below.
With its shaggy black crest, clean white forehead (in non-breeding plumage) and black bill with yellow tip, a Sandwich Tern returns to the beach to enjoy a freshly caught breakfast snack.
Often seen in very large flocks on beaches (where they run in unison trying to avoid getting their feet wet), today most of the Sanderlings spotted were in small groups or singles, such as this one.
One of the three small sandpipers known collectively as “peeps”, the Western Sandpiper is about 6.5 inches (16.5 cm) long and has a drooping bill which is a bit longer on average than the other two (Least and Semipalmated Sandpiper).
A wingspan of up to 45 inches (115 cm) helps the Black Skimmer to cruise low as it keeps its outsized lower mandible just below the water’s surface ready to scoop up small fish and crustaceans. A Laughing Gull lounges to the right.
On a crowded sandbar, a huge Brown Pelican makes a landing. One has to admire whatever sort of flight control is involved in such a feat!
“Man-O-War Bird.” “Pirate of the sky.” Magnificent Frigatebirds are a joy to watch as they soar effortlessly over the water using their long forked tails to steer. Their nicknames, however, are well-earned. They will harass other birds mercilessly until they regurgitate or drop freshly caught food which the frigatebird retrieves in mid-air. The male has a red throat patch and the female a white breast.
The Semipalmated Plover nests in the Arctic and many will spend the winter on Florida’s beaches. This diminutive shorebird has been successful in diversifying its diet and habitat more than some of its cousins. As a result, its population has seen increases in the past few years.
Apparently, Ruddy Turnstones will also turn over seaweed when looking for a meal.
More Marbled Godwit candids. I couldn’t resist.
For such a large, ungainly-looking bird, Brown Pelicans certainly do appear graceful in flight. Landing – well – as a pilot friend once remarked, “any landing you walk (waddle?) away from is a successful one”.
They look plain and gray but when the Willet spreads its wings, a beautiful black and white striping is revealed. Some guy named John James Audubon advised they can be mighty tasty. Here, the Willet shares the breakfast buffet with a Marbled Godwit.
A medium to large heron, Reddish Egrets probably number less than 5,000 within the United States. Their distinctive “dance” while foraging is an unforgettable experience.
My strategy emulated the herons this morning as I steadily plodded along the shoreline, entered the water up to my waist (which helped to photograph birds on the sandbar close to eye-level), slowly moved along the lagoon, holding still for long periods – all helped the birds remain calm as they went about their daily routine. I know, it’s a lot of pictures. With more to come. Total images for the day = 725. Be thankful I’m only forcing you to look at a few!
Up next, more terns, more gulls, Big Red with an attitude and a rare European tourist!
To be continued …..